Campus & Community

Meaningful meal

6 min read

Donors, students gather for Celebration of Scholarships dinner

There aren’t many people who can point to a single day when everything in their life changed, but Jesse Sanchez ’14 can.

“The day was March 31 — three days after my 18th birthday,” he said. “I come home to an email from the Harvard College Admissions Office. ‘Dear Mr. Sanchez’ … I couldn’t believe it. At that moment, I realized I was accepted to Harvard University.”

Being accepted, however, was only the first hurdle Sanchez faced in coming to Harvard.

Even a single semester’s tuition was far beyond his family’s income. Without some sort of support, it was unlikely this Californian would ever set foot in Cambridge. For Sanchez and thousands of other Harvard students, that support arrived in the form of Harvard’s Financial Aid Initiative.

“As I reflect on the last four years of my life, I ask myself how all of this was possible,” Sanchez said recently. “I realize that this opportunity to change my family’s reality came from people like you. And there are no words to express my gratitude. My life could have been very, very different, but you have helped make this an opportunity that I will always cherish — always.”

Sanchez’s comments came during the Celebration of Scholarships dinner, an annual event that brings together students who benefit from financial aid with donors who support the program. With more than 300 students and donors on hand, Sanchez shared his story and described his plans to work in Mexico next year as a Fulbright Scholar.

Held earlier this month in Annenberg Hall, the dinner was co-hosted by longtime financial aid supporters Jerry Jordan ’61, M.B.A. ’67, and his wife, Darlene, and featured comments from Harvard President Drew Faust and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons, both of whom extolled the Financial Aid Initiative as being among Harvard’s most important programs.

“Ensuring the success and strength of financial aid is one of my highest priorities as president,” Faust told donors and students. “What Harvard is depends on who it is. Attracting the most talented students is essential to all we’ve ever been and hope to be, and I’m convinced that enabling such talented students to have the benefit of a Harvard education is also essential to all we want the world to be.”

For donors like Brian Keane ’83, M.B.A. ’87, the dinner marks an invaluable chance to see, in an up-close-and-personal way, how their donation affects the lives of students in meaningful ways.

“We believe that the greatest investment we can make in anyone is an education,” Keane said. “It cannot be overstated how important education is. It is one of the most powerful instruments of economic growth and well-being. To help make Harvard more reachable for more people by giving to financial aid is very meaningful to me and my family.”

Established in 2000, the Keane Family Scholarship Fund provides support to 10 Harvard College students, and is specifically directed at students from the New England region. Over the years, Keane said, the program has provided opportunities for a diverse group of students, from those who grew up on farms to those who lived in inner cities, with interests as diverse as music and technology.

“They are unbelievably diverse,” Keane said of the students who benefit from financial aid. “They are all incredibly capable in their own way. What makes the Harvard experience so amazing has, in large part, to do with the community of students they join on campus. The academics, obviously, are exceptional, but I don’t think anywhere else are you going to get the diverse, incredible student body you find here. That’s part of why we support Harvard — so Harvard can continue to be that place.”

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) launched its portion of the University capital campaign in October. At $600 million, financial aid is the largest of the six goals for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ $2.5 billion drive.

“Because of our unwavering commitment to keeping a Harvard College education affordable for all students, regardless of family income, the real cost for most families will remain far less than the so-called ‘sticker price,’ ” said FAS Dean Michael D. Smith. “We owe a debt of gratitude to our extremely generous alumni, whose support makes our financial aid program possible.

While the program offers clear benefits to the students on campus by finding exceptional students and giving them the opportunity to go on to become exceptional citizens, its effects reach far beyond the gates of Harvard Yard.

Nicolas Jofre ’13 (Ricardo Salas Scholarship Fund) is among those who benefited from financial aid; he now runs The Student Union, a Boston-based initiative that encourages high school students and recent graduates to become involved in education policy.

“Had it not been for the financial aid I received, I would not have been able to attend Harvard,” Jofre said.

Looking back on it now, Jofre said if he’d had to forgo a Harvard education, it’s unlikely his life would have continued on the same trajectory he’d set during his high school career.

“I was very engaged in education advocacy in California, and had the privilege of serving on the state Board of Education at 17 years old,” he said. “I don’t know that the many wonderful things I did at Harvard, and that I’m doing now, would have happened had I gone to community college. In many ways, financial aid … really gave me the opportunity to live up to my fullest potential. It has definitely made the difference of a lifetime.”

Although she was accepted at other colleges, Gabriela Ruiz-Colon ’16 (Helen L. and Benjamin J. Buttenwieser Scholarship Fund) said the excitement that came with the acceptance was often tempered with concerns about the cost of tuition.

“I was able to embrace Harvard immediately, knowing that the Financial Aid Office was going to have my back, and they have been incredible,” she said.  “Harvard gives you everything you need to become the person you want to be.”